China Ivory Prosecution: A Success Exposes Fundamental Failure

Chinese media reported last week that China has convicted a major ivory seller in Fujian and his accomplices for their role in an international ivory trafficking scheme that smuggled nearly eight tonnes of ivory out of Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria.

The arrest and conviction of a government-accredited ivory trader by Chinese authorities is a major law enforcement development, long overdue, and to be commended. It brings into further question, however, the decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to approve China in the first place. And it casts a further shadow over TRAFFIC, a World Wildlife Fund subsidiary hired by CITES to monitor ivory trafficking.

“The magnitude of these seizures is a shocking blow to the integrity of China’s legal ivory trade system and demonstrates the need for an independent audit to be carried out,” said TRAFFIC’s top ivory trade expert, Tom Milliken, in a press release Friday (“Court Case Verdict Reveals True Scale of 2011’s ‘Annus Horribilis’ for African Elephants“).

But it was Milliken himself who officially endorsed China’s legal ivory trade system as part of a three-man CITES inspection team, an endorsement that enabled the sale of more than 60 tonnes of ivory to China in 2008, opening the door to a new era of elephant poaching.

Ivory Tower Enforcement

In 2005 the CITES Secretariat sent the three-person team to China to evaluate that country’s internal control system before deciding whether to allow China to buy ivory from Africa in a “one-time” exception to the 1989 global ivory ban. The team consisted of CITES law enforcement director John Sellar, World Customs Organization official Kazunari Igarashi, and TRAFFIC’s Tom Milliken.

“It was the unanimous opinion of the team that China generally complies with the requirements for control of internal ivory trade…,” the CITES Secretariat reported. “The team believes that the legal ivory trade system that has been established in China offers an opportunity to eradicate, or at least significantly reduce, illicit trade.”

Despite objections from conservation organizations, the Secretariat endorsed China’s ivory control program, and CITES’s Standing Committee member countries approved China to participate in a 2008 ivory auction.

NGO experts prophesied that an ivory sale to China would lead to increased poaching and smuggling, something borne out by undercover investigations done by the Environmental Investigation Agency, an NGO based in London. Officials, however, often dismiss such ad hoc investigations as “anecdotal” and unscientific.

CITES prefers statistics. It hired TRAFFIC to conduct statistical studies of global ivory seizures through a program called the Elephant Trade Information System (ETIS), run by Milliken. While opening an important window on illegal trade, CITES parties have made their ivory trade policy decisions based overwhelmingly on a misinterpretation of ETIS results. In particular, they concluded that because ETIS can’t prove statistically that ivory auctions lead to crime, ivory auctions don’t lead to crime.

By every measure the result has been catastrophic. Tens of thousands of elephants a year are being slaughtered. Hundreds at a time have been mowed down by terroristic bands operating in West and Central Africa. Others are fed poisoned watermelons; some are even shot from military helicopters. Lately, tourists have been finding it difficult to see any elephants in some of East Africa’s premiere wildlife viewing destinations. Instead, morning radios crackle with news of dead elephants and orders from authorities to keep tourists away.

The Most Lucrative Ivory Market in the World Is China

China, the world’s largest ivory consumer, did not report the Fujian-related seizures to ETIS, presumably because it was conducting an investigation. This is good police work, but it meant that CITES parties had no idea how bad ivory trafficking that year really was. “2011 was already the worst year for the volume of ivory seized since records were first compiled in 1989,” Milliken said last week, “but this new information puts the total into the astronomic zone.”

Here we see yet another weakness of CITES’s near complete dependence on ivory seizures to set policy. If countries are doing good police work, they will keep an ivory “seizure” to themselves and follow a shipment’s trail to its kingpin. ETIS then undervalues crime, and CITES parties can’t make informed decisions.

The amount of ivory seized in 2011 is now 46.5 tonnes, equivalent to more than 46 million dollars on the Chinese market. According to Interpol, seizures equal only about 10 percent of contraband actually in trade, which means that nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of raw ivory may have been smuggled in 2011.

In 24 years no major transnational ivory trafficking kingpin has been convicted in this multi-billion dollar black market industry. The conviction of a man responsible for 7.7 tonnes is a start, but enforcement still lags far behind what is necessary to achieve anything close to an acceptably clean, legal ivory trade.

Milliken’s call for an independent audit of China’s legal ivory trade system suggests that TRAFFIC approves of China’s ivory trade system if only regulation of it were tightened. (My requests to him and to TRAFFIC for clarification received no response.) This is a position CITES Secretary-General John Scanlon has expressed, too.

But earlier this year, TRAFFIC’s parent, the World Wildlife Fund, pressed for a total ban on ivory trade in Thailand. What is good enough for Thailand for some reason is not good enough for China.

Ostrich Enforcement: Chinese Agency Responsible for Ivory Denies Responsibility

It is essential that governments at all points in the ivory trail commit to enforcement. China’s commitment has been weak, or worse, on multiple levels. As discussed in National Geographic’s October 2012 Blood Ivory: Ivory Worship  story, the Chinese government conspired with the Japanese government to control ivory prices during the 2008 ivory auctions in Africa. And, after the sale it raised ivory prices in China, making it more profitable to be in the illegal ivory business, not less.

In a recent poll conducted to supplement the National Geographic film Battle for the Elephants, 84 percent of Chinese middle class respondents said they intend to buy ivory in the future. They also said the number one reason they might stop buying ivory is if their government told them to stop.

But the Chinese government is in the ivory business. It controls the country’s largest ivory carving factory as well as retail outlets. At a CITES meeting in Bangkok earlier this year, China’s delegate Wan Ziming of the State Forestry Administration (SFA) told CITES parties that ivory trafficking and elephant poaching were Africa’s problem, not China’s. He has condemned the ivory ban as ineffective, has pushed for more ivory sales to China, and has claimed it is reasonable to supply consumer countries with 200 tonnes of ivory a year.

Ironically, at the same time media reported last week’s sentencing, another SFA official, Yan Xun, denied a link between China’s ivory market and poaching: “Has China’s legal ivory trade caused the poaching of wild elephants? I don’t think there is necessarily a connection,” he told a press conference.

China’s prosecution of this ivory trafficking ring is a significant development, and its willingness to expose a government-authorized dealer should be seen as a very positive development.

But the CITES system for evaluating whether to allow ivory sales is broken, and the organization it goes to for advice has a track record of getting it wrong.


  1. vrengky aditya
    of course indonesia
    August 30, 2014, 6:52 pm

    i like your write and picture, how to make photographer in NG?. thks

  2. Jerry
    August 2, 2013, 12:42 am

    I am from China originally. Yes, I against ivory trade everywhere. It is shame that our Chinese people still think it for granted that ivory is kind of luxury goods. More Chinese get richer, more natural disaster we may face. Wake up, our fellows, let us change it!

  3. Gail sealy
    New york
    July 10, 2013, 9:43 pm

    Dear Bryan
    Thanks. What can the average person do? I have an idea to start a campaign among opinion leaders in china , utilizing sicial media, which could change the mores and lead to slackened demand. Let’s follow the shark fin campaign which was such a success and is leading to changes in the behavioral norms of the younger Chinese. If we can remove demand, that’s half the battle. Is there anyone willing to work with me? We could get Greenpeace involved.
    I refuse to be a helpless bystander to this outrage.

  4. Wildlife Margrit
    June 3, 2013, 9:25 pm

    Sadly it gets harder to know who’s in be with whom. But then when there is so much money to be had…
    Unless we can somehow figure out a way to preserve our planet’s wildlife species without a price tag on their head (or body) it seems there will always be those who’ll have some rationale to exploit them for personal gain.

  5. Mike Mills
    June 3, 2013, 3:40 pm

    The lack of common sense is palpable. Everyone involved in the decision-making process is intelligent and highly articulate. The ‘missing-link’ is common sense – the dependence on assessments – rather than a genuine desire to protect endangered species. It doesn’t take a great conventional education to understand what is happening, just a little (not much!) common sense …

  6. Luffy
    June 2, 2013, 9:51 pm

    Donde estan los elefantes que aparecen en la foto del face???

  7. scott
    Vancouver BC
    June 2, 2013, 2:29 pm

    These people are idiots…what kinda of moron thinks China will cooperate? ever? Its all about them. and the statements by the officials are laughable and direct evidence of how much they have their heads in the sand about it. We need to increase penalties for ALL ivory sales and Elephant deaths…like serious, shoot first, ask questions later penalties, thats all people will understand, because god knows the poachers will shoot you first if given a chance

  8. Christina
    June 2, 2013, 10:49 am

    Can’t the US and other countries impose sanctions on any nation involved in illegal ivory trading? It seems there needs to be some motivation for governments to protect the animals. Consider elephant poaching a form of genocide. As a side note… Muslim terror groups benefit from ivory trade. This should be motivation to step up law enforcement.

  9. A Voice for our Elephants
    June 2, 2013, 10:36 am

    The rise in the number of elephants being poached since CITES lifted the ban for China is a clear indication of how both CITES and China revere money. So what does that say about how they revere life?

    CITES was created to protect our wildlife. But they turn a blind eye and are now directly responsible for destroying it. Tom Milliken, John Seller and Kazunari Igarashi either need to take more positive actions to stop the murdering of our animals, or they need to step down and let someone else do it.

    If Yan Xun and Wan Ziming are who the Chinese public look to in order to tell them whether or not to buy ivory, then that is just ignorance and stupidity that will lead them down a path of karmic destruction for their blind allegiance. I don’t wish that kind of karma on anyone for all the killing and bloodshed that they are responsible for by turning a blind eye. The karmic pendulum WILL swing by. That’s just how karma works.

  10. Judy Salerno
    June 1, 2013, 1:23 am

    I am so terribly sick and tired of the same story about China and CITES, with the outcome we all knew would come to pass. China is a liar and nothing but deciet flows from their mouths. They are ruthless, selfish and single minded in their mission to have all the invory in the world when it finally does become obsoluete in the world. Let, me ask you all, how is it that you, who probably know so much of the inter workings of these politicans, gangs, thugs, killers, poor people and the rest, how did you get it so wrong, to allow that many millions of elephants to have to die for nothing. The world is getting fed up, and who knows what will happen when we see that day come, but personally, I hope it comes soon. I will do whatever I can, and whatever is going to take to get our elephants back to their homes and safe, finally and forever. Let it be so, let it be done. Amen.

  11. Meredith Ogilvie-Thompson
    New York
    May 31, 2013, 2:47 am

    Great story Bryan and really great news – a firm step in the right direction I hope